Media coverage of disasters can have lasting effects on children’s mental health

In 2018, American children have been exposed to multiple disasters—ravaging wildfires in California, to major Hurricanes in Florida and the Carolinas, and mass shootings in schools and places of worship—all of which have been covered 24/7 by the media. Disaster communication experts at the University of Missouri say disaster media coverage can have lasting effects on children’s mental health and suggest teachers and parents be prepared to respond to questions during and after a catastrophe.

Researchers in the MU Disaster and Community Crisis Center found that teachers and parents might not be prepared to respond to students’ questions and anxieties in the aftermath of natural or human-caused disasters. The coverage can impact children’s mental health, not only in school but in response to future disasters as well.

“Teachers spend seven to eight hours a day with children,” said Jennifer First, program manager at the Disaster and Community Crisis Center and a doctoral candidate in the MU School of Social Work. “They often are the first responders, both directly and indirectly.”

The Disaster and Community Crisis Center developed a step-by-step plan with guidelines on how to discuss disasters with children. They found that teachers commonly don’t know how to answer children’s questions about disasters such as mass shootings or devastating wildfires, or explain why they happen at all.

“Images of disasters stay with kids for a long time,” First said. “That’s why it’s important to be prepared and offer helpful coping methods.”

The researchers surveyed 42 teachers on their preparation in dealing with media coverage of disasters. They also were asked what techniques they felt were needed to help students in dealing with their fears and anxieties. First and her colleagues found that many children bring concern to teachers and parents about why these terrible things happen and what can be done to stop it happening to them. The Disaster and Community Crisis Center includes instructions in their disaster intervention protocols about encouraging safety measures and helping victims. The detailed instructions can be found on their website.

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High fat diet has lasting effects on the liver

Consuming a high-fat, high-sugar diet causes a harmful accumulation of fat in the liver that may not reverse even after switching to a healthier diet, according to a new study by scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

For the study, published Oct. 3 in Science Translational Medicine, the investigators developed a nanosensor that can detect and noninvasively track the accumulation of fat in the liver. They used the sensor to assess the effects of a high-fat, high-sugar diet on the livers of mice. They then evaluated the outcomes when the mice returned to a healthy diet. Unexpectedly, the researchers found that, while the fat accumulation decreases after returning to a healthy diet, some residual fat remains in certain liver cells long afterwards.

“Going on a short-term unhealthy diet binge is a bad idea,” said senior author Dr. Daniel Heller, an associate professor in the Pharmacology and Physiology, Biophysics and Systems Biology program at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences and head of the Cancer Nanomedicine Laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “The liver remembers.”

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) affects up to 30 percent of people in the United States, where a high-fat, high-sugar diet is common. Patients with NAFLD develop an accumulation of excess fat in their livers. The condition can progress to a more serious disease involving inflammation, scarring and even liver cancer (called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH). People who accumulate fat inside liver cells called Kupffer cells, specifically a part of these cells named lysosomes that act like cellular garbage collectors, appear more likely to progress to serious liver disease.

“Fatty liver disease is a growing concern in the clinic and has rapidly become one of the top causes of liver disease in the United States and Europe,” said co-author and hepatologist Dr. Robert Schwartz, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and an assistant professor in the Physiology, Biophysics and Systems Biology program at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. “Currently, we have no medical therapies for fatty liver disease. We tell our patients to eat better and to exercise more, which, as you can imagine, is not very effective.”

Currently, some imaging tools like ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging can help identify people with fatty livers, but these techniques often provide less detailed information. Dr. Heller’s nanosensor is the first to noninvasively detect fat in the lysosomes of the Kupffer cells, potentially identifying those most at risk of progressing.

The tiny sensor is about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair and made of single-stranded DNA wrapped around a single-walled carbon nanotube. Fat accumulation in the lysosomes changes the color of light emitted by the nanosensor, and was first observed in live cells in Dr. Heller’s lab by MSKCC research associate Prakrit Jena and Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences student Thomas Galassi, the first author of the paper.

When the nanosensors are injected into a mouse, the liver filters them out of the blood and then are consumed by the organ’s lysosomes. Shining a near-infrared flashlight-like device on rodents injected with these nanosensors causes the sensors to glow. The color of the light corresponds to the fat content in the liver, allowing Dr. Heller and his colleagues to measure fat non-invasively using the device.

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